What kind of social knowledge does a football coach have?

I am struck by the difference between the football game that I watch, as a not-very-involved fan, and the one that the experienced coach or sportswriter sees. For me the game is a series of fast-moving passes, tackles, runs, interceptions, touchdowns, and athletic movements. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense as a whole — either within a single play or over an extended period of the game. Contrast that with the perceptions of the game by an experienced, expert observer. A football expert sees more than the individual movements; he sees an organized play unfolding; a missed assignment; an opportunistic change-of-plan by the quarterback; and a feature of a game plan that can gradually be inferred. In other words, the expert sees the movements of the players as a complex of strategic behavior, skilled performance, planning, and opportunistic adjustment.

What kind of cognition is this? What is the cognitive difference between the expert and non-expert observer? And how does this relate to social knowledge more generally?

Let’s take the last question first. Observing the football game is a lot like observing many other kinds of complex relational social interactions: a political campaign, a disaster involving hundreds of victims and responders, or a riot. The football game involves coordination among an number of purposive actors; a degree of organizational structure; the design and implementation of plans; processes of communication (successful and unsuccessful); and the ability of actors to respond to each other’s movements on the fly. (To change sports — when Larry Bird stole the inbound pass from Isiah Thomas in the last seconds of a celebrated playoff game against the Pistons, his teammate Dennis Johnson was already streaking to the basket in anticipation of the possibility of a stolen pass; he then made an uncontested layup and won the game.) These are common features of complex social interactions. So the football game is a complex, structured, and layered social event that unfolds over time; and the meaning and causes of particular actions and events are obscure to the casual observer, whereas they are apparent to the expert.

Perceiving the football game as a social event unfolding in time requires more than simply registering the movements of the players on the field. It is necessary to frame these movements within an apperception of the strategies and intentions that lie behind the actions: the attempt to deceive the opponent (fast footwork, the hidden ball trick); the sudden break to the center of the field by the receiver; the quarterback’s effort to buy time until a receiver becomes open. We need to have a basis for saying “what they are doing” that goes beyond a description of the movements and steps taken. And for the expert, a rich framework of understandings of actions, intentions, and strategies is brought to the observation of the particular play. The expert is able to place the actions of the quarterback, the left tackle, and the three receivers into a context of understandable actions and choices; and he is able to discern when something has gone wrong (receiver turned left rather than right, left tackle missed a block, quarterback panicked and threw the ball away …).

I want to suggest that the expert’s perception of the play on the field is a complex but veridical observation of a concrete relational social phenomenon; that it is more akin to perception than to theory formation; and that it reflects a complicated cognitive process through which the expert assembles a lot of knowledge about the game, about the habits and practices of players, about common strategies and tactics — and that all of this gets sized up in a quick apperception of the specific play. Finally, I want to suggest that this apperception is enormously richer than the crude empirical observations that the non-expert makes: “the center seems to have slipped, the pass was complete”.

If this analysis of the situation of the two observers — expert and duffer — is plausible, it has important implications for the knowledge that we have of other, less trivial forms of social interaction. Does the experienced labor organizer have a similar ability to size up a crowded shop floor and see where the stress points are, and who the likely leaders are? Does a field officer in the infantry have the ability to mentally organize the flow of the battle through the fog of war and arrive at a perception of how things are going — and what might work as a tactic for the next day? Does the ethnographer have the ability to put together the social cues that permit him or her to conclude that “there is some angry disagreement among members of the village today”? In each case I suspect that there is a good basis for saying, “yes, this is how observation of complex social situations goes for the expert observer.” And this implies that there is a kind of social knowledge that is analogous to perception even though it involves a very great amount of cognitive construction.

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